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The Gates of Europe
A History of Ukraine
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A New York Times bestseller, this definitive history of Ukraine is “an exemplary account of Europe’s least-known large country” (Wall Street Journal).
As Ukraine is embroiled in an ongoing struggle with Russia to preserve its territorial integrity and political independence, celebrated historian Serhii Plokhy explains that today’s crisis is a case of history repeating itself: the Ukrainian conflict is only the latest in a long history of turmoil over Ukraine’s sovereignty. Situated between Central Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, Ukraine has been shaped by empires that exploited the nation as a strategic gateway between East and West—from the Romans and Ottomans to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. In The Gates of Europe, Plokhy examines Ukraine’s search for its identity through the lives of major Ukrainian historical figures, from its heroes to its conquerors.
This revised edition includes new material that brings this definitive history up to the present. As Ukraine once again finds itself at the center of global attention, Plokhy brings its history to vivid life as he connects the nation’s past with its present and future.
UKRAINIANS PROBABLY HAVE just as much right to brag about their role in changing the world as Scots and other nationalities about which books have been written asserting their claim to have shaped the course of human history. In December 1991, as Ukrainian citizens went to the polls en masse to vote for their independence, they also consigned the mighty Soviet Union to the dustbin of history. The events in Ukraine then had major international repercussions and did indeed change the course of history: the Soviet Union was dissolved one week after the Ukrainian referendum, and President George H. W. Bush declared the final victory of the West in the prolonged and exhausting Cold War.
The world next saw Ukraine on television screens in November 2004, when festive orange-clad crowds filled the squares and streets of Kyiv demanding fair elections and got their way. The Orange Revolution gave a common name to a number of "color revolutions" that shook authoritarian regimes from Serbia to Lebanon and from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan. The color revolutions did not change the post-Soviet world, but they left a lasting legacy and the hope that it would change one day. Ukrainians reappeared on the world's television screens in November and December 2013, when they poured onto the streets of Kyiv once again, this time in support of closer ties with the European Union. At a time when enthusiasm for the European Union was at a low ebb among its member countries, the readiness of the Ukrainians to march and stay on the streets in subzero temperatures for days, weeks, and months surprised and inspired the citizens of western and central Europe.
Events in Ukraine took an unexpected and tragic turn in early 2014, when a confrontation between the protesters and government forces violently disrupted the festive, almost street-party atmosphere of the earlier protests. In full view of television cameras, riot police and government snipers used live ammunition, wounding and killing dozens of pro-European demonstrators in February 2014. The images shocked the world. So did the Russian annexation of the Crimea in March 2014 and, later that spring, Moscow's campaign of hybrid warfare in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. In July, the downing by pro-Russian separatists of a Malaysian airliner with almost three hundred people on board turned the Russo-Ukrainian conflict into a truly international one. The developments in Ukraine had a major impact on European and world affairs, causing politicians to speak of a "battle for the future of Europe" and a return of the Cold War in the very part of the world where it had allegedly ended in 1991.
What has caused the Ukraine Crisis? What role does history play in those events? What differentiates Ukrainians from Russians? Who has the right to the Crimea and to eastern Ukraine? Why do Ukrainian actions have major international repercussions? Such questions, asked again and again in recent years, deserve comprehensive answers. To understand the trends underlying current events in Ukraine and their impact on the world, one has to examine their roots. That, in very general terms, is the main task of this book, which I have written in the hope that history can provide insights into the present and thereby influence the future. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the outcome and long-term consequences of the current Ukraine Crisis or the future of Ukraine as a nation, the journey into history can help us make sense of the barrage of daily news reports, allowing us to react thoughtfully to events and thus shape their outcome.
This book presents the longue durée history of Ukraine from the times of Herodotus to the fall of the USSR and the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict. But how does one distill more than a millennium of the history of a place the size of France, which has close to 46 million citizens today and has had hundreds of millions over the course of its existence, into a couple of hundred pages? One has to pick and choose, as historians have always done. Their approaches, however, differ. The founder of modern Ukrainian historiography, Mykhailo Hrushevsky (1866–1934), who is a character in this book and the scholar for whom the chair of Ukrainian history at Harvard University is named, regarded his subject as the history of a nation that had existed since time immemorial and known periods of flourishing, decline, and revival, the latter culminating in the creation of Ukrainian statehood in the course and aftermath of World War I.
Hrushevsky established Ukrainian history as a distinct field of research, but many of his critics and successors have questioned his approach. Hrushevsky's students put emphases on the history of Ukrainian statehood; Soviet historians told the history of Ukraine as one of class struggle; some Western writers have emphasized its multiethnic character; today, more and more scholars are turning to a transnational approach. These latter trends in the writing of Ukrainian and other national histories have influenced my own narrative. I have also taken advantage of the recent cultural turn in historical studies and research on the history of identities. The questions I ask are unapologetically presentist, but I do my best not to read modern identities, loyalties, thoughts, motivations, and sensibilities back into the past.
The title of the book, The Gates of Europe, is of course a metaphor, but not one to be taken lightly or dismissed as a marketing gimmick. Europe is an important part of the Ukrainian story, as Ukraine is part of the European one. Located at the western edge of the Eurasian steppe, Ukraine has been a gateway to Europe for many centuries. Sometimes, when the "gates" were closed as a result of wars and conflicts, Ukraine helped stop foreign invasions east and west; when they were open, as was the case for most of Ukraine's history, it served as a bridge between Europe and Eurasia, facilitating the interchange of people, goods, and ideas. Through the centuries, Ukraine has also been a meeting place (and a battleground) of various empires, Roman to Ottoman, Habsburg to Romanov. In the eighteenth century, Ukraine was ruled from St. Petersburg and Vienna, Warsaw and Istanbul. In the nineteenth century, only the first two capitals remained. In the second half of the twentieth, only Moscow ruled supreme over most of the Ukrainian lands. Each of the empires claimed land and booty, leaving its imprint on the landscape and the character of the population and helping to form its unique frontier identity and ethos.
Nation is an important—although not dominant—category of analysis and element of the story that, along with the ever changing idea of Europe, defines the nature of this narrative. This book tells the history of Ukraine within the borders defined by the ethnographers and mapmakers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which often (but not always) coincided with the borders of the present-day Ukrainian state. It follows the development of the ideas and identities linking those lands together from the times of the medieval Kyivan state, known in historiography as Kyivan Rus', to the rise of modern nationalism and explains the origins of the modern Ukrainian state and political nation. In doing so, the book focuses on Ukrainians as the largest demographic group and, in time, the main force behind the creation of the modern nation and state. It pays attention to Ukraine's minorities, especially Poles, Jews, and Russians, and treats the modern multiethnic and multicultural Ukrainian nation as a work in progress. Ukrainian culture always existed in a space shared with other cultures and early on involved navigating among the "others." The ability of Ukrainian society to cross inner and outer frontiers and negotiate identities created by them constitutes the main characteristic of the history of Ukraine as presented in this book.
Politics, international and domestic, provide a convenient storyline, but in writing this book, I found geography, ecology, and culture most lasting and thus most influential in the long run. Contemporary Ukraine, as seen from the perspective of longue durée cultural trends, is a product of the interaction of two moving frontiers, one demarcated by the line between the Eurasian steppes and the eastern European parklands, the other defined by the border between Eastern and Western Christianity. The first frontier was also the one between sedentary and nomadic populations and, eventually, between Christianity and Islam. The second goes back to the division of the Roman Empire between Rome and Constantinople and marks differences in political culture between Europe's east and west that still exist today. The movement of these frontiers over the centuries gave rise to a unique set of cultural features that formed the foundations of present-day Ukrainian identity.
One cannot tell the history of Ukraine without telling the story of its regions. The cultural and social space created by the movement of frontiers has not been homogenous. As state and imperial borders moved across the territory defined by Ukrainian ethnic boundaries, they created distinct cultural spaces that served as foundations of Ukraine's regions—the former Hungarian-ruled Transcarpathia, historically Austrian Galicia, Polish-held Podolia and Volhynia, the Cossack Left Bank of the Dnieper with the lower reaches of that river, Sloboda Ukraine, and finally the Black Sea coast and the Donets basin, colonized in imperial Russian times. Unlike most of my predecessors, I try to avoid treating the history of various regions (such as the Russian- and Austrian-ruled parts of Ukraine) in separate sections of the book but rather look at them together, providing a comparative perspective on their development within a given period.
In conclusion, a few words about terminology. The ancestors of modern Ukrainians lived in dozens of premodern and modern principalities, kingdoms, and empires, and in the course of time they took on various names and identities. The two key terms that they used to define their land were "Rus'" and "Ukraine." (In the Cyrillic alphabet, Rus' is spelled Pycь: the last character is a soft sign indicating palatalized pronunciation of the preceding consonant.) The term "Rus'," brought to the region by the Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries, was adopted by the inhabitants of Kyivan Rus', who took the Viking princes and warriors into their fold and Slavicized them. The ancestors of today's Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians adopted the name "Rus'" in forms that varied from the Scandinavian/Slavic "Rus'" to the Hellenized "Rossiia." In the eighteenth century, Muscovy adopted the latter form as the official name of its state and empire.
The Ukrainians had different appellations depending on the period and region in which they lived: Rusyns in Poland, Ruthenians in the Habsburg Empire, and Little Russians in the Russian Empire. In the course of the nineteenth century, Ukrainian nation builders decided to end the confusion by renouncing the name "Rus'" and clearly distinguishing themselves from the rest of the East Slavic world, especially from the Russians, by adopting "Ukraine" and "Ukrainian" to define their land and ethnic group, both in the Russian Empire and in Austria-Hungary. The name "Ukraine" had medieval origins and in the early modern era denoted the Cossack state in Dnieper Ukraine. In the collective mind of the nineteenth-century activists, the Cossacks, most of whom were of local origin, were the quintessential Ukrainians. To link the Rus' past and the Ukrainian future, Mykhailo Hrushevsky called his ten-volume magnum opus History of Ukraine-Rus'. Indeed, anyone writing about the Ukrainian past today must use two or even more terms to define the ancestors of modern Ukrainians.
In this book, I use "Rus'" predominantly but not exclusively with reference to the medieval period. "Ruthenians" to denote Ukrainians of the early modern era, and "Ukrainians" when I write about modern times. Since the independent Ukrainian state's creation in 1991, its citizens have all come to be known as "Ukrainians," whatever their ethnic background. This usage reflects the current conventions of academic historiography, and although it makes for some complexity, I hope that it does not lead to confusion.
"Come, and you will see," wrote the anonymous author of History of the Rus', one of the founding texts of modern Ukrainian historiography, at the end of his foreword. I cannot conclude mine with a better invitation.
ON THE PONTIC FRONTIER
THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
THE FIRST HISTORIAN of Ukraine was Herodotus, the father of history himself. This honor is usually reserved for the histories of countries and peoples belonging to the Mediterranean world. Ukraine—a stretch of steppes, mountains, and forests north of the Black Sea, which was known to the Greeks as the Pontos euxeinos (Hospitable Sea, latinized by the Romans as Pontus euxinus)—was an important part of that world. Its importance was of a particular nature. The world of Herodotus was centered on the city-states of ancient Greece, extending to Egypt in the south and the Crimea and the Pontic steppes in the north. If Egypt was a land of ancient culture and philosophy to study and emulate, the territory of today's Ukraine was a quintessential frontier where Greek civilization encountered its barbaric alter ego. It was the first frontier of a political and cultural sphere that would come to be known as the Western world. That is where the West began to define itself and its other.
Herodotus, known in Greek as Herodotos, came from Halicarnassus, a Greek city in what is now Turkey. In the fifth century BC, when he lived, wrote, and recited his Histories, his birthplace was part of the Persian Empire. Herodotus spent a good part of his life in Athens, lived in southern Italy, and crisscrossed the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds, traveling to Egypt and Babylon among other places. An admirer of Athenian democracy, he wrote in Ionic Greek, but his interests were as global as they could be at the time. His Histories, later divided into nine books, dealt with the origins of the Greco-Persian wars that began in 499 and continued until the mid-fifth century BC. Herodotus lived through a good part of that period and researched the subject for thirty years after the end of the wars in 449. He depicted the conflict as an epic struggle between freedom and slavery—the former represented by the Greeks, the latter by the Persians. Although his own political and ideological sympathies were engaged, he wanted to tell both sides of the story. In his own words, he set out "to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements of both the Greeks and the Barbarians."
Herodotus's interest in the "barbarian" part of the story turned his attention to the Pontic steppes. In 512 BC, thirteen years before the start of the wars, Darius the Great, by far the most powerful ruler of the Persian Empire, invaded the region to avenge himself on the Scythians, who had played a trick on him. The Scythian kings, nomadic rulers of a vast realm north of the Black Sea, had made Darius march all the way from the Danube to the Don in pursuit of their highly mobile army without giving him a chance to engage it in battle. This was a humiliating defeat for a ruler who would pose a major threat to the Greek world a decade and a half later. In his Histories, Herodotus spared no effort in relating whatever he knew or had ever heard about the mysterious Scythians and their land, customs, and society. It would appear that despite his extensive travels, he never visited the region himself and had to rely on stories told by others. But his detailed description of the Scythians and the lands and peoples they ruled made him not only the first historian but also the first geographer and ethnographer of Ukraine.
THE LANDS NORTH of the Black Sea were first settled ca. 45,000 BC by Neanderthal mammoth hunters, as we know from archeological excavations of their dwellings. In the fifth millennium BC, bearers of the so-called Cucuteni-Trypilian culture settled the forest-steppe borderlands between the Danube and the Dnieper, engaged in animal husbandry and agriculture, built large settlements, and produced clay statues and colored ceramics. Some 3,500 years before common era, humans who populated the Pontic steppes domesticated the horse—according to more evidence provided by archeologists.
Before Herodotus began to recite parts of his work at public festivals in Athens, most Greeks knew very little about the area north of the Black Sea. They thought of it as a land of savages and a playground of the gods. Some believed that it was there, on an island at the mouth of either the Danube or the Dnieper, that Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War and Homer's Iliad, had found his eternal rest. Amazons, the female warriors of Greek mythology who cut off their right breasts to better steady their bows, also lived in that area, supposedly near the Don River. And then there were the ferocious Taurians of the Crimea, a peninsula known to the Greeks as Taurica. Their princess, Iphigenia, showed no mercy to travelers unfortunate enough to seek refuge from Black Sea tempests on the mountainous shores of the Crimea. She sacrificed them to the goddess Artemis, who had saved her from the death sentence pronounced by her father, Agamemnon. Few wanted to travel to lands as dangerous as those bordering the "Hospitable Sea," which was in fact very difficult to navigate and known for severe storms coming out of nowhere.
The Greeks first heard of the lands and peoples north of the Black Sea from a nation of warriors called the Cimmerians, who appeared in Anatolia after the Scythians drove them out of the Pontic steppes in the eighth century BC. The nomadic Cimmerians moved first to the Caucasus and then south toward Asia Minor, encountering Mediterranean cultures with a long tradition of sedentary life and cultural accomplishment. There the nomadic warriors became known as quintessential barbarians, a reputation recorded in the Bible, where Jeremiah describes them as follows: "They are armed with bow and spear; they are cruel and show no mercy. They sound like the roaring sea as they ride on their horses; they come like men in battle formation to attack you." The image of the Cimmerians as savage warriors also made its way into modern popular culture. Arnold Schwarzenegger played Conan the Barbarian—a fictional character invented in 1932 by the writer Robert E. Howard—as the king of Cimmeria in a 1982 Hollywood hit.
The Crimea and the northern shores of the Black Sea became part of the Greek universe in the seventh and sixth centuries BC, after the Cimmerians were forced to leave their homeland. Greek colonies then began to spring up in the region, most of them founded by settlers from Miletus, one of the most powerful Greek states of the era. Sinope, founded by Miletians on the southern shore of the Black Sea, became a mother colony in its own right. Colonies on the northern shore included Panticapaeum near today's city of Kerch, Theodosia on the site of present-day Feodosiia, and Chersonesus near the modern city of Sevastopol, all three in the Crimea. But by far the best-known Miletian colony was Olbia at the mouth of the Southern Buh (Boh) River, where it flows into the estuary of the even larger Dnieper, their combined waters emptying into the Black Sea. The city featured stone walls, an acropolis, and a temple to Apollo Delphinios. According to archeologists, Olbia covered more than 120 acres at its peak. As many as 10,000 people lived in the city, which adopted a democratic form of government and managed relations with its mother city of Miletus by treaty.
Olbia's prosperity, like the well-being of other Greek cities and emporia (trading places) in the region, depended on good relations with the local population of the Pontic steppes. At the time of the city's founding and throughout its most prosperous period, the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the locals happened to be Scythians, a conglomerate of tribes of Iranian origin. The Greeks of Olbia and their neighbors not only lived side by side and engaged in commerce but also intermarried, giving rise to a large population of mixed Greek and "barbarian" blood whose customs combined Greek and local traditions. Olbia's merchants and sailors shipped cereals, dried fish, and slaves to Miletus and other parts of Greece, bringing back wine, olive oil, and Greek artisanal wares, including textiles and metal products, to sell at local markets. There were also luxury items made of gold, as we know from excavations of burial mounds of Scythian kings. The steppes of southern Ukraine are full of such mounds, now largely reduced to small hills and known in Ukrainian as kurhany.
BY FAR THE most impressive piece of so-called Scythian gold, a three-tier pectoral, was discovered in southern Ukraine in 1971 and can be seen today at the Ukrainian Museum of Historical Treasures in Kyiv. The pectoral, which probably dates from the fourth century BC and once decorated the chest of a Scythian king, offers a view of the inner workings of Scythian society and economy. At its center is a depiction of two kneeling bearded Scythian men who hold a sheepskin coat. Given the material of which the entire pectoral is made, this reminds one of the golden fleece of the Argonauts—a symbol of authority and kingship. To the right and left of the central scene are images of domesticated animals—horses, cows, sheep, and goats. There are also images of Scythian slaves, one milking a cow, another a ewe. The pectoral leaves little doubt that the Scythians lived in a male-dominated society of steppe warriors whose economy depended on animal husbandry.
If the images of Scythians and domesticated animals take us inside the Scythian world, those of wild animals depicted on the pectoral tell us more about how the Greeks imagined the farthest frontier of their universe than about real life on the Pontic steppes. Lions and panthers pursue boars and deer, while winged griffins—the most powerful animals of Greek mythology, half eagles, half lions—attack horses, the animals most important to the Scythian way of life. The pectoral is an ideal symbol not only of Greek cultural transfer but also of the interaction of the Greek and Scythian worlds in the Pontic steppes.
That intertwining of cultures allowed Herodotus to collect the kind of information about Scythian life that no archeological dig could provide. The founding myth of the Scythians certainly belongs to that category. "According to the account that the Scythians themselves give, they are the youngest of all nations," stated Herodotus in his Histories, allegedly descended from a certain Targitaus, who had three sons. "While they still ruled the land, there fell from the sky four implements, all of gold—a plough, a yoke, a battle axe, and a drinking cup," as Herodotus retold the Scythian founding myth. Two elder brothers tried to take the gifts from the sky, but they burst into flames, and only the youngest brother managed to take and keep them. He was immediately recognized as the supreme ruler of the realm and gave rise to the Scythian tribe known as Royal Scythians, who dominated the Pontic steppes and kept the gold that had fallen from the sky. The Scythians apparently saw themselves as an indigenous population. Otherwise, they would not have claimed that the parents of their founder, Targitaus, were a sky god and a daughter of Borysthenes, known today as the Dnieper, the main river of the realm. The same myth suggests that although ruled by nomads, the Scythians also thought of themselves as agriculturalists. The tools given to them by heaven included not only a yoke but also a plow, a clear sign of sedentary culture.
- "[An] exemplary account of Europe's least-known large country... one of the joys of reading the The Gates of Europe is that what might seem a dense account of distant events involving unfamiliar places and people is leavened by aphorism and anecdote."—Wall Street Journal
- "An assured and authoritative survey that spans ancient Greek times to the present day."—Financial Times
- "Readers can find no better place to turn than Plokhy's new book.... Plokhy navigates the subject with grace and aplomb."—Foreign Affairs
- "[An] admirable new history.... In his elegant and careful exposition of Ukraine's past, Mr. Plokhy has also provided some signposts to the future."—Economist
- "Elegantly written."—New York Review of Books
- "The timeframe and subjects covered here are extraordinary...students, academics, and readers with a general knowledge of Ukraine will appreciate. Alternatively, chapters can be read independently, allowing those with a strong interest in the subject to focus on a specific era of Ukraine's history."—Library Journal
- "Injecting appropriate nuance and complexity into a single-volume overview of 2,000 years of Ukrainian history is no small task, but Plokhy approaches this charge with dexterity and skill.... Plokhy's work serves as a welcome introduction to Ukraine's ethnic and national history."—Publishers Weekly
- "[A] concise, highly readable history of Ukraine...a lively narrative peopled with a colorful cast of Norse and Mongol marauders, free-booting Cossacks, kings, conquerors and dictators, and conflicted 19th century intellectuals who believed fervently in a Ukrainian cultural identity but were fatally divided as to how that cultural identity could evolve into national entity."—Washington Times
- "A masterly surveyor of Ukrainian history."—Independent (UK)
- "A sympathetic survey of the history of Ukraine along the East-West divide, from ancient divisions to present turmoil.... A straightforward, useful work that looks frankly at Ukraine's ongoing "price of freedom" against the rapacious, destabilizing force of Russia."—Kirkus Reviews
- “Complex and nuanced, refreshingly revisionist and lucid, this is a compelling and outstanding short history of the blood-soaked land that has so often been the battlefield and breadbasket of Europe.”—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
- "This is present-minded history at its most urgent. Anyone wanting to understand why Russia and the West confront each other over the future of Ukraine will want to read Serhii Plokhy's reasoned, measured yet passionate account of Ukraine's historic role at the gates of Europe."—Michael Ignatieff, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
- "For a comprehensive, engaging, and up-to-date history of Ukraine one could do no better than Serhii Plokhy's aptly titled The Gates of Europe. Plokhy's authoritative study will be of great value to scholars, students, policy-makers, and the informed public alike in making sense of the contemporary Ukrainian imbroglio."—Norman M. Naimark, Stanford University
- On Sale
- May 30, 2017
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Basic Books